The following text was originally intended as a short booklet with which we could communicate to our friends and partnering churches the basic Biblical context for missions that has helped to motivate us to take part in cross-cultural ministry. This is the third of a four part series.
I argued in Part 2 that the blessing God pronounced upon His newly created humanity also revealed the reason for their creation – their purpose – which was to ultimately become a globe full of God-glorifying humanity. And though the encumbrance of sin resulting from the fall necessitated a redemptive element within humanity’s purpose, the purpose none-the-less continued unchanged from Adam to the nation of Israel.
God’s Heart for the Nations
From Genesis 12 to the gospels, the narrative is dominated by Israel. But as the pages of scripture reveal how an old man with no heir grew into a nation, was led out of Egypt, faltered in the wilderness, took possession of the promised land, endured cycles of prosperity, sin, judgment, and salvation, forfeited its place in the land under God’s disciplinary judgment, and received the promise of a future restoration, I want to highlight two aspects of Israel’s history relating to God’s original purpose: 1) Israel essentially failed in their task of blessing the nations; but 2) the coming Messiah (an Israelite) would be the fulfillment of that blessing.
The Failure of Old Testament Israel
I’m not trying to be overly harsh here. Most readers of the Old Testament would agree that Israel was in part a shining image of God worshiping, faithful devotion to the Lord, and yet at times the nation completely failed to live up to God’s requirement of them. Like Jekyll and Hyde (and me and you) they flip flopped between excellence and shameful rebellion; we observe God’s repeated calls for the nation to repent and return to Him. What many readers may have neglected to notice, however, is that God’s ultimate purpose, for which He created Adam and Even in the first place and sent Abraham and his nation into motion, was a greater issue than Israel’s specific sin and idolatry. It is true that they transgressed the covenant and broke the law throughout their history, but to stop there is to miss the bigger picture of God’s heart for the nations. Israel’s sin cost them in their own relationship with God, but it also caused them at times to falsely represent their holy God before the nations – precisely opposite of their purpose.
As Israel reeled under the weight of exile, having been vomited out of the land and taken as captives to Babylon, God sent His prophet Ezekiel to speak on His behalf about the redemption and restoration that was to come.
Therefore say to the house of Israel, ‘Thus says the Lord God, “It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations where you went.
“I will vindicate the holiness of My great name which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord,” declares the Lord God, “when I prove Myself holy among you in their sight.”’ (Ezekiel 36:22-23, NASB)
Israel’s sin failure caused them to neglect their greater task as a kingdom of priests. Their harlotry with the false gods of their neighbors threw mud upon the exalted name of God. They had failed to be a blessing. God was about to act on His own behalf; His restorative action would bring incalculable blessing to Israel, but He would not allow them to be ignorant of His reason. God’s redemption of Israel would accomplish what they were unable to accomplish: His name would be praised among the nations.
The Coming Messiah
The whispers of the Messiah (lit. “anointed one”) can be seen from the beginning. Long before Israel existed (and needed a redeemer) he was identified in the protoevangelion of Genesis 3:15 as the “seed” of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent. ((Jim Hamilton wrote a lengthy, but excellent, article on this interpretation of Genesis 3:15 in the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. The author’s summary can also be seen here.)) Through progressive revelation he would eventually be identified as the anticipated savior of Israel. The Apostle Paul saw him in God’s promise to Abraham (Galatians 3:15-18, exegeting Genesis 12:7), and Abraham’s grandson Jacob foretold the messiah would be a descendant of his son Judah (Genesis 49:10). Much more would be revealed in time: he would be a king from the line of David, his reign would never end, and through him Israel would finally become all that they were meant to be, partake of all that was promised them, and enjoy eternity with the covenant blessings. His kingdom would be the Kingdom of God, wherein Israel would finally and fully rest in the security and provision of their Lord. This was great news for Israel, but Israel is only the tip of the iceberg. Even in his direct association with Israel, the Messiah’s global purpose remained.
God affirmed through the prophets that Israel’s Messiah would be used of God to complete His program with the nations. The following two passages in Isaiah demonstrate this point exactly. Speaking to His anointed, he says:
“This is what the true God, the Lord, says –
the one who created the sky and stretched it out,
the one who fashioned the earth and everything that lives on it,
the one who gives breath to the people on it,
and life to those who live on it:
‘I, the Lord, officially commission you;
I take hold of your hand.
I protect you and make you a covenant mediator for people,
and a light to the nations,
to open blind eyes,
to release prisoners from dungeons,
those who live in darkness from prisons.’“ (Isaiah 42:5-7)
“He says, ‘Is it too insignificant a task for you to be my servant,
to reestablish the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the remnant of Israel?
I will make you a light to the nations,
so you can bring my deliverance to the remote regions of the earth.’” (Isaiah 49:6)
The Messiah would come to bring restoration to the broken nation of Israel, but he would be so much more than that. He would be a light to the nations, one by whom God’s salvation would reach the ends of the earth. And just like we saw in Revelation earlier, the prophet Daniel saw a glimpse of the Messiah in his future kingdom, a time when the worldwide mission is complete and the throne of the king is surrounded by men and women of all peoples, nations, and languages.
“I was watching in the night visions,
‘And with the clouds of the sky
one like a son of man was approaching.
He went up to the Ancient of Days
and was escorted before him.
To him was given ruling authority, honor, and sovereignty.
All peoples, nations, and language groups were serving him.
His authority is eternal and will not pass away.
His kingdom will not be destroyed.’” (Daniel 7:13-14)
Continue on to the final post in the series, Part 4.